Rethinking the notions of ‘people’ and ‘popular sovereignty’

By Panagiotis Sotiris*

For the past weeks Greece has been going through something close to a post-modern ‘coup d’Etat’. The Papandreou government, which had imposed austerity packages that have already led to a social disaster and had lost any legitimacy, was facing the task to impose a ten-year program of even more austerity and limited economic sovereignty. It opted for a ‘heroic exit’ through a referendum. Although designed to manipulate public opinion into accepting these policies of social barbarism, the referendum opened the possibility of the rejection of the policies imposed by the EU-ECB-IMF Troika. Fearing that this might destabilize not only Greek austerity policies but the whole financial and monetary architecture of the Eurozone, European heads of government, the European Union directorate and the IMF, launched an extreme attack on the referendum, using all forms of open blackmail, including the threat of a forced Greek default and exit from the Eurozone. The other obvious solution, namely an immediate election, was also ruled out, although it was explicitly demanded by the main opposition party, because it entailed the risk of a delay or challenge to the measures imposed. Consequently, a coalition ‘national unity’ government was demanded, whose program (and even the prime minister in the person of former ECB vice president L. Papademos) was openly dictated by the European Union and the IMF. In a complete disrespect even of the rules of ‘western’ liberal governance and national sovereignty, they demanded that this policy of an extremely violent change of social paradigm not only was agreed upon but also fully implemented before any election took place. The message was simple: there is no room for politics, other than the ones demanded by markets and international organizations. The forces of capital in Greece and corporate mass Media openly support this strategy presenting an artificial image of a society simply demanding ‘consensuses’ at the top.
These developments have been the result of a double political crisis in Greece. On the top we have the crisis of the political scene and the difficult adjustment of the party system to the ‘Shock Therapy’ demanded and the new regime of limited sovereignty. But below, we have a deeper political crisis, a growing distance between society and the political system in general.
This growing alienation between the political scene and society has also taken collective forms. Greece for the past months has been experiencing a cycle of rising social protest and contention, a cycle that one might describe as being of an almost insurrectionary character. This is evident in the escalation of protests, exemplified in the massive wave of public sector strikes and occupations of Ministry buildings, in the two-day national strike on 18-20 October, in the highly symbolic image of demonstrators disrupting military parades on 28 October, in the politicization and radicalization of demands, and in the emergence of a various forms of self organization and solidarity. Moreover, from late May to July 2011 we had the unique experience of the movement in the city squares, the bigger sequence of protests in the past decades, which included a highly original experience of direct democracy in action.
What has been the most important and promising aspect has been the re-emergence and at the same time re-composition of the people as not only a potentially anticapitalist social alliance, but also as a collective political subject, articulating demands and collective aspirations through processes parallel to typical parliamentary forms of representation. The mass manifestations not simply as ‘shows of collective strength’ but also as forms of forging collectivities, the mass assembly at the square as a means for people of different social and political backgrounds to come together, the occupations of public buildings by striking workers, the multiple forms of collective disobedience, all these have been ways to bring together different social experiences and articulate common demands, that however schematic they might be, have in common the enmity of working people, whether salaried, unemployed or self-employed against what is perceived as the violence of the market, and especially the international markets, against society. That is why the mass use of Greek flags, sometimes misinterpreted as a sign of nationalism, was in fact the emergence of this demand for collective resistance, dignity and popular sovereignty. That is also way the disruption of military parades was not only a way to protest but also an attempt to reclaim the symbolic historical continuity with a collective memory of popular anti-fascist resistance.
In light of these, the very notion of sovereignty takes another meaning. The forces of capital are ready to accept forms of limited economic and in the last instance political sovereignty as a means to change the balance of class forces, through processes such as the new European Economic Governance and the new mechanisms of permanent economic supervision imposed in the name of the debt crisis. That is why current waves of austerity and the dismantling of public services are perceived as an attempt to undermine the right of a society to have whatever social arrangement thinks is necessary. We are entering a post-democratic and post-hegemonic form of capitalist governance that through the evocation of a ‘state of permanent economic emergency’ denies any actual discussion of policy choices, presenting politics as an ‘auto-pilot’ process of simply succumbing to the demands of markets.
Therefore, the demand to reclaim sovereignty in the name of the people and a radical political alternative has a deeply class character and is internationalist in its essence. It represents the attempt to de-link social formations from the social violence of internationalized capital, through crucial steps such as the refusal to pay the debt or the exit from the euro, and to experiment with non-capitalist social configurations.
In parts of the Marxist and generally radical tradition there has been a reservation against both the notion of the ‘people’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ because of their association with forms of bourgeois mystification of social antagonism and political domination, as exemplified in the image of the people inscribed in the European constitutional tradition that mystifies class division, struggle and exploitation. But we have to reclaim it and transform it. The very notion of the people must be rethought in ways that include class antagonism and the opposition not only to international centres of power but also the forces of capital at home, that oppose it to all forms racism, and identify it not to the nation or the abstract sum of citizens but to the alliance of all those within a social formation that, one way or another, depend upon their labour power to make a living. This would also include the experimentation with new non-parliamentary forms of democracy. The current forms of direct democracy of struggle and non hierarchical forms of coordination emerging in the current international cycle of protest should not be seen as instrumental ways to achieve demands but also as forms of an emerging ‘dual power’. At the same time the notion of popular sovereignty must also be thought as a form of a collective social self-determination, the collective political ability to challenge and overturn current forms of capitalist domination and exploitation (including the coercive ability to impose the ‘will of the people’ against potential ‘enemies of the people’), and the collective effort to create new social forms based on cooperation and solidarity and non – exploitative productive paradigm. This is a most crucial aspect of Marxist or communist politics today.
Having experienced in the past three years in Greece as a laboratory of struggle both the negative, ‘destructive’ face of current insurrectionary tendencies, especially in December 2008, and the current more positive experience of struggle, self-organization and solidarity, I think we need a Left that must think not simply in terms of struggle or resistance but also of power and hegemony, pick up the challenge to speak about not only demands or needs, but also about which general direction a society must take. The articulation, in the conjuncture, especially in potential ‘weak links’ such as Greece, of the crisis of neoliberal governance, the crisis of the European Integration project, the crisis of capitalist developmental paradigms, and open political crisis, opens up possibilities that were inexistent some years ago when the forces of capital seemed to have the initiative.
It is high time that we make the necessary move from the indispensable negativity of class antagonism to the always precarious positivity of an alternative political project and think in terms of hegemony, the possibility of new ‘historical blocs’, new necessary encounters between potentially anticapitalist popular alliances, transformative political projects and concrete anticapitalist alternatives, that would open new truly progressive vistas for societies such as Greece away from the extreme historical backwardness that the forces of capital are pulling us into.

Department of Sociology, University of the Aegean, Mytilene, Lesvos
Paper presented at Historical Materialism conference in London, Nov. 2011

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2 Comments on “Rethinking the notions of ‘people’ and ‘popular sovereignty’”

  1. Gray says:

    The Junta was a coup d’etat, the recent change in government was a totally constitutional event not unusual in parliamentary democracies. You may prefer the more direct democratic system of the US, but in that you may have a president who doesn’t have suppport from the representatives (the problem Obama faces now) and that would right now be an even worse situation. Democracy is always a compromise.

    And then, the Trojka doen’t DEMAND something, that’s just how the media and many more or less knowledgeable pundits distortingly paint the picture. In reality, the EU/IMF OFFERS a rescue plan that comes with specific demands. Greece doesn’t have to accept that, but if the people don’t want that, they have to look for new credits elsewhere. In that case, the most realistic alternative is to exit the Eurozone and start to print Drachmes again. But that option isn’t painless, either, it’s just that the impact would be different.

    I, for one, think the Papandreou referendum was a good idea that came at a totally inappropriate time (much too late) and was presented in a counterproductive way. The other EU leaders, who had put a lot of their political capital into the haircut plan, should have been informed beforehand. I have no idea why Papandreou handled this the way he did, but with the last minute timing and the surprise effect the referendum was unacceptable for Merkel and Sarkozy. And lets not forget that all oppositional parties in Greece rejected it, too.

    As for the points about Marxism – well, since there hasn’t been any nation run on Marxist principles that actually created a competitive, sustainable economy, despite many attempts, imho that whole line of thought is just a waste of time. Realistic proposals, please.

  2. [...] coalition. We first saw him at the 2011 Historical Materialism conference in London, where he spoke brilliantly as part of a large plenary on the topic “In the name of the people?” Since then his polemical [...]


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